Tribute to Bessie John


In remembrance of Bessie John

Mr. McRobb: Mr. Speaker, I rise today on behalf of all members of this Legislature in paying tribute to a well-known elder and grand matriarch of the Upper Tanana people.

Bessie John was born to Lucy and White River Johnny in the spring of 1923, just north of Beaver Creek at Sourdough Hill, or Nìi'ìi. She was raised in the traditions of the Upper Tanana and Northern Tutchone people and given the native name, Nel Nah.

For people of her generation, "your life was your work and your work was your life." It wasn't easy surviving the long, extremely cold winters on the land in the remote north. Her family kept on the move between Coffee Creek and Little Scottie Creek along the Yukon/Alaska border.

Although Bessie could not participate in the public school system, she painstakingly learned from her own elders about the geography, place names and traditional stories of the Scottie Creek drainage in culturally appropriate ways, every bit as formal as our western education.

Later in life, she appreciated the adult education training course, started by the Yukon Vocational School. She was extremely proud of her son-in-law, then-Government Leader, Tony Penikett, whose government supported the native language initiative.

During the Council for Yukon First Nation's general assembly at Aishihik in 1989, it was Bessie's uplifting and emotional speech that convinced the chiefs to accept the White River First Nation as the fourteenth Yukon First Nation at the land claims table.

Training as a native language instructor at Yukon College was another highlight of her life. She was honoured when John Ritter, now director of the Yukon Native Language Centre, learned to speak in her language. Mr. Ritter also designed a program at which adult native people, with little formal education, could earn a teaching certificate.

At Yukon College in 1992, Chancellor Pierre Berton presented Bessie with her teaching certificate. She taught the upper Tanana language at the Beaver Creek school from 1989 to 1993, before retiring in 1994.

In the year following, she helped produced the Upper Tanana-Scottie Dialect Glossary, which, Mr. Speaker, I tributed in this House on April 15, 1997.

Bessie was very, very proud of her heritage, and she loved to express herself through storytelling and singing. She recorded information on native medicine and many native songs for television and radio and was a regular guest at the Yukon International Storytelling Festival in Whitehorse. Her daughter, Doris Johns, assisted in her language and cultural work. Her only other daughter, Lula Johns-Penikett, assisted her in recording traditional knowledge, along with good friend, anthropologist Norm Easton.

Predeceased by her mother and father - Lucy and White River Johnny - brothers Peter Johnny and Joe Johnny, and half-sister Cecelia Johnny, Bessie is survived by her husband Edgar Albert; sisters Jenny Sandford and Marilyn VanderMeer Sanford; brothers Tommy Johnny, Patrick Johnny and Chief David Johnny; daughters Lula Johns-Penikett and Doris Johns; sons Richard Johns, Gordon Johns and stepson Robert Johnny; and many grandchildren and other relations throughout the north.

Bessie passed away suddenly and unexpectedly on June 3, 2000, at St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver after a lengthy heart operation. Her funeral services spanned the past three days, from Beaver Creek to Northway, Alaska, and Sourdough Hill, or Nì'ìi', where she was laid to rest yesterday afternoon.

Bessie's love of her language and pride in her native tradition are irreplaceable. She will be greatly missed by her people, friends and relations throughout Alaska and the Yukon.

Thank you.


[For information about Bessie John' s work with the Yukon Native language Centre, please see her biography.]